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Unlocking the Key to Personalized Learning

Blended curriculum allows for differentiation in this Texas district.
By Lynn Young

My diverse, 30-year career in K–12 education—including both general and special education—has taught me that each student deserves rigorous, standards-aligned instruction. While this has always been a foundational idea and professional vision of mine, it was not until recently that, through the help of technology, I was able to deliver a truly personalized, standards-aligned curriculum to all of my students.

As Killeen Independent School District’s (KISD) Executive Director for Special Education, I serve more than 52 elementary, middle, and high schools located in central Texas. From an outsider’s perspective, KISD may seem like a typical district; the student demographics, however, make Killeen unique. The district is comprised of more than 42,000 students. About 11 percent of our kids are in special education, while 50 percent are children of active military or civil service families. Both these groups present challenges to our goal of providing a rigorous and aligned curriculum that meets the needs of each individual student.

Take, for example, KISD’s transient military population. While a typical school may receive a few transfer students annually, KISD has a mobility rate of more than 30 percent—in other words, about one-third of KISD’s student population is either coming in or leaving due to their families’ military assignments every year. Each student arrives with a different educational background, leaving our educators and administrators with the important task of evaluating their knowledge quickly and efficiently, to identify their knowledge gaps and learning strengths. Similarly, in special education classrooms, KISD needs to deliver personalized instruction to students to close learning gaps and meet the state requirements of their IEPs.

When given the opportunity to implement a new math and reading curriculum prior to the 2010–2011 school year, our military and special education students weighed heavily in my thinking. In searching for a solution, I had three priorities:

  1. The solution must be customizable, allowing for personalized lessons and content for individual students, including assessments.

  2. The solution must easily and continuously track and report student progress.

  3. The solution’s software must be user-friendly for both educators and students.

 After months of research, I selected Pearson’s SuccessMaker, a researched-based educational software for personalized digital math and reading curriculum. I chose it because it focused on effectively addressing individual learning needs while supporting the instructional goals of our district. The implementation of SuccessMaker created a blended learning environment, with daily use of the software varying across schools. For example, during the first year of implementation the students at Clear Creek Elementary used the program for 15- to 20-minute sessions three or four times a week, while students at Harker Heights High School used it for 15- to 20-minute session three or four times daily. One of the strengths of the program is that it’s able to adapt to the learning needs of each student; it continuously analyzes performance, while identifying areas for remediation or acceleration, and effectively estimates the amount of time necessary for students to reach achievement levels.

The results speak for themselves. Within five months of starting the program, special education students at Harker Heights High School demonstrated 1.13 years of academic growth in reading and 1.43 years of academic growth in math. Furthermore, by the end of the 2013–2014 school year, 92 percent of special education students in Manor Middle School’s eighth grade who were building reading skills with the program passed the state reading assessment on the first attempt. For military special education students who spent the recommended time on the math curriculum, we saw a steeper learning trajectory than for special education students who were not using the program.

Additionally, we saw significant improvement on less tangible learning goals. Students were excited to interact with the technology and reported that the online program increased their confidence. One ninth-grade English language learner said,

“I like SuccessMaker because it helps make math and reading easier on the computer.  It is better listening on a computer than to a teacher. You get to have confidence in yourself.  SuccessMaker helped give me that confidence, a lot!”

To me, this testament speaks volumes. Anything that makes learning more enjoyable and increases student confidence, all while delivering aligned curriculum, is a huge asset. In fact, due to the success of the program, the 2014–2015 school year marks the first year that the online program will be made available to all special education students within the KISD.

Our adoption of SuccessMaker aligns directly with the national educational transition away from the traditional “seat time” methodology, in favor of a structure that promotes flexibility, allowing students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. The bottom line is this: It is our job as administrators always to be looking for avenues to enhance education for our students. Personalized learning tools provide the opportunity to further engage students, address diverse learning styles, and provide the resources and content that address their immediate and future educational needs.

Lynn Young, Ed.D., is currently the executive director for special education at Killeen Independent School District in Texas. She has worked in the education field for more than 30 years, in positions ranging from speech therapist to principal. She has spent the last 10 years specializing in special education.

 Image: Media Bakery


Benchmarking the Road to College

This school reverse engineered key college predictors to help students start to reach their ultimate goal as early as fifth grade.
By Mike Lucas

As a social studies teacher, a reading teacher, and now as a school leader, I’ve been part of Baltimore’s KIPP Ujima Village Academy since it opened in 2002. KIPP Ujima is a public charter school in Maryland that serves kids in fifth through eighth grades, and we’ve got our eyes on the prize: excellence without exception in every area of our students’ lives.

We serve just more than 500 students, 99 percent of whom are African-American and 85 percent of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. In the past 12 years we helped our students achieve some of the highest scores in the city on Maryland’s state assessment, a tremendous achievement by any scale. But that focus on state test performance diverted us away from our mission. We realized, as we saw our kids struggle to succeed in high school, that we weren’t giving them what they needed to determine whether or not their academic performance and behavior in school were putting them on track to enter college.

Research shows that middle school, the time when children enter adolescence and undergo profound developmental changes, can be treacherous. Kids report higher stress levels, relationships with family become tense, and on average we see a drop in school achievement and engagement. To counter these trends, we’ve put supports in place to meet the learning needs of all of our students. We’ve done this in two important ways: by creating a grade-level team-teaching structure that builds in planning time while fostering teacher collaboration; and introducing our Made for Maryland program, which helps us assess whether students are where they need to be in order to be college-bound.

We knew it was important to find a new way to support educators systemically in their grade and curricular area in order to serve students best. When our school opened in 2002, we had 90 kids per grade with five teachers and one special educator on a grade-level teaching team. We expanded and last year doubled to 180 kids per grade level. This increase in enrollment meant that we could now have two teaching teams at each grade level, with 90 kids each. This growth allowed us to structure our school day so that each teacher is afforded two built-in planning periods, plus lunch, for a total of three hours of planning time every day. With two teams per grade level, every instructor has a partner teacher who is covering the same subject.

Having time to collaborate with a planning partner allows teachers to constantly learn from one another to improve their practice and better support students in the classroom. Goal-setting is an important aspect of teacher collaboration for us. While each grade has its own goals, teachers are responsible for creating and implementing the plan for student achievement relative to those goals. For some, this can be as simple as grouping students. Our classrooms are heterogeneous, so teachers have to do their own grouping. Using assessment data for instructional differentiation, teachers are able to work together to make helpful comparisons among students that accelerate learning.

Beyond supporting great instructional work, we needed a workable frame for understanding whether or not our kids were on track to succeed in high school and college. This is the core goal of our Made for Maryland program. To build such a framework, we looked at the value of a place like the University of Maryland. This university is an affordable public school with a high graduation rate, including a 73 percent minority graduation rate. The University of Maryland is a great local target for our students, but it is also very difficult to get into, with a 47 percent acceptance rate. To gain entrance, students need proof of academic achievement.

With the University of Maryland as our target, we wondered how we could measure whether a student was on pace for acceptance, even as early as fifth grade. We created a three-part initiative that we called Made for Maryland.

First, we emphasized the importance of students’ everyday academic performance, as measured by grade point average. We know test scores help get you into college, but GPA is a much better predictor of college success. If students want to go to college, they have to get good grades in the years leading up to college. We set our bar at 80 percent for the honor roll. To be Made for Maryland, however, students must earn an 87 percent overall average.

Second, we have traditionally sent home a character report card at the end of each quarter. Like many KIPP schools, we teach and measure seven character traits that we believe are the key to academic success: grit, zest, optimism, curiosity, self-control, social intelligence, and gratitude. Students learn about each of these traits in homeroom every day. Teachers score students on a ten-point scale at the end of each academic quarter. Any student with an 8.0 overall average is Made for Maryland.

Finally, we wanted test scores that mattered. We needed test scores that went beyond the proficiency information we got from the state assessment. We found what we were looking for with the computer adaptive Measures of Academic Progress assessment from Northwest Evaluation Association. MAP provides immediate feedback to teachers about student learning by pinpointing where students are ready to advance and where they need help, regardless of grade level. Students achieving growth in the 75th percentile and above are deemed Made for Maryland, meaning that they are on track to be accepted into a highly competitive public university like the University of Maryland. Students in the 50th percentile or above qualify as “college-bound.

Because we now have ample information about where students are in their learning and how they are behaving, when a student has fallen behind or made a series of bad choices, we can demonstrate how these actions impact a specific part of the equation. This data helps us to clearly explain to parents where kids are, what their college outlook is, and what needs to change to get them on track.

“My daughter needed a school that was challenging and better than the average middle school. I was sold on the slogan Knowledge Is Power—and the commitment to prepare her for high school and college,” said Janet Alford, parent of a seventh grader.

We believe students need to be prepared in all three of these areas to be truly college- bound. So every fall, each kid looks at last year’s MAP scores and sets growth goals for the months ahead. We have conversations with kids about where they are and where they need to be in eighth grade. When we take MAP for a second time in winter, our kids are really excited. They defy the stereotype of the typical disengaged middle schooler. When you walk around our building during MAP testing week, 100 percent of the kids know their score and their goal. They earn stickers that say “I’m Made for Maryland,” “I’m college-bound,” or “I made my growth goal.” Our kids are achieving in a way that will get them into college, and we know it. That’s powerful. 

Mike Lucas is principal of KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a public charter school in Baltimore serving more than 500 students in grades 5–8. At KIPP Ujima, students attend school for up to 8.5 hours a day, as well as three weeks in the summer. 

Image: Jose Luis Pelaez/Media Bakery


Keeping Dr. King's Dream Alive

Students from across the country talk about discrimination, unrest, and demonstration.
By Kim Greene

As protests about the deaths of unarmed black men have spread across the country, conversations about race relations have perhaps never been more relevant in America’s classrooms. In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, students from eight diverse schools joined together on a webcast to discuss King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as it relates to both current and historic events.

The webcast, which was held by New York’s Rochester City School District and Cisco, in conjunction with the Council of Urban Boards of Education and the Council of the Great City Schools, served as a national dialogue on racial inequality. It was a platform for students to educate others about how far the country has come in realizing Dr. King’s dream—and how far it still has to go. “The students are the teachers,” said Van White, board president of Rochester schools, who moderated the event.

Dr. King’s Key Ideas

Students dissected four themes from Dr. King’s famed speech: segregation and discrimination; unearned suffering; unrest, discontent, and demonstration; and his dream. For each theme, one school examined the idea in the context of events leading up to or during the civil rights era, while another school considered how the theme relates to the present day. Students expressed their ideas—and, in some cases, frustrations—in the format of classroom discussions, poems, and videos.

Participants from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School No. 9, a PreK-8 school in Rochester, talked about the history of segregation and discrimination. They discussed what King meant when he said African-Americans were crippled by the “chains of discrimination.” Students cited examples of separate and unequal access to education and facilities, all while passing around chain shackles that would have been used to restrain slaves.

Students from MetEast High School in Camden, New Jersey, were then charged with answering the question of whether or not segregation and discrimination exists today. Two students shared powerful poems referencing examples of present-day discrimination, including questions about police brutality toward the African-American community. “Why is it only our people hitting the ground?” asked one poet.

Primary Sources

The 2014 deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, were central to the discussions throughout the webcast. But they were especially at the core of what students from those two cities contributed to the conversation.

Brooklyn Preparatory High School students were tasked with analyzing today’s unrest, discontent, and demonstration. The teens offered firsthand accounts—the stuff that primary sources are made of—since many of them have taken part in the recent Black Lives Matter protests in New York City. They debated if Dr. King would have approved of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and they drew comparisons between those protests and protests of the civil rights movement. One student noted that Dr. King was the face of civil rights, but in the Black Lives Matter movement, there are many faces. “We don’t just need one face. Eric Garner is a face. Michael Brown is a face. Trayvon Martin is a face,” he said.

Students from Missouri also offered a prime view of race relations. In the video “Are We Living ‘The Dream?’” students from McCluer South-Berkeley High School in Ferguson, Missouri examined whether Dr. King’s dream has been realized. Teens compiled footage of the protests taking place in their own community, as well as of a school walkout that occurred when a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown. To end the video, students asked school staff and fellow teens if Dr. King’s dream had been fulfilled. Some said yes, referring to examples of integrated schools and towns, while some said no, citing incidents in which they had been personally discriminated against. Others fell in the middle, summing it up in a few words: “Dr. King’s dream is a work in progress.”

Image: Courtesy of Ryan Griffith, Rochester City School District


Tech + Grit = Math Success

Mathematics scores are trending upward with the help of digital resources.
By Wayne D’Orio

For students today, math is too often a four-letter word, to be avoided at all costs. We’ve seen the numbers and heard the reports—math education is a major weakness for today’s children, we aren’t creating enough students with the right skills to fill high-paying STEM jobs, and our students are falling significantly behind compared to other countries.

Yet amid all the gloom and doom, a panel of five experts gathered recently at Discovery Education headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, to discuss ways to improve math education, re-energize students and teachers, and end what many think has become a pattern of declining math performance.

“We’re on the cusp of tremendous opportunity,” said Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District, in North Carolina. “We recognize our deficiency and can use digital resources to help students.”

Francis “Skip” Fennell, professor of education at McDaniel College, in Westminster, Maryland, argued that perception is one of math’s biggest problems. Test scores on the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study bear him out. In 2011, fourth-grade U.S. students scored 12 points higher than in 2007, although eighth-grade students’ scores were flat. Fourth graders ranked behind just eight countries, while placing ahead of 42 education systems around the world. For eighth graders, 11 countries placed higher than U.S students, while 32 placed below. Math achievement can be improved, but students are making progress, said Fennell.

Actor and best-selling author Danica McKellar agreed with Fennell. McKellar writes books to help encourage girls to pursue math, such as 2008’s Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss. At book signings, she has talked with girls who put down their math achievement, only to reveal that they are getting good grades. It’s a vicious cycle, says McKellar: “For most parents, math brings back bad memories.” We need to tell students that “doing math is like going to the gym for your brain,” she added.

Other panelists included Michele Weslander-Quaid, Google’s chief innovation evangelist and Portia Wu, assistant secretary of employment and training administration at the U.S. Department of Labor. The event was held in conjunction with Discovery Education’s new Math Techbook, a digital textbook designed to encourage inquiry-based learning.

To really turn the tide, said Edwards, schools that are used to celebrating success have to celebrate progress as well, especially by struggling students. In Mooresville, he added, where test scores are among the highest in North Carolina, there is “a relentless belief in every child.”

“We evaluate children for their potential,” said Edwards. “We have math nights in all of our elementary schools to teach parents about math. There’s a constancy of reaching out. This is not a short-term effort.”

Weslander-Quaid said teachers’ reactions to mistakes could deter students. Mistakes should be corrected but they should not be viewed as proof that a student can’t succeed, she added. “In the tech world, if you’re not failing sometimes, you’re not pushing hard enough.”

Wu previewed the upcoming job market, saying that more than 1 million STEM jobs will be created in the next decade. STEM jobs currently pay twice as much as median wages, she added, yet there are not enough qualified workers to fill these spots.

To watch the entire Discovery Education event, visit www.discoveryeducation.com

Image: Courtesy of Discovery Education

How to Start Your Blended Learning Conversion

Five steps to help you start slowly, and end successfully.
By Comaneci Brooken

Any project that’s worth doing is worth doing right. For district administrators, “doing things right” generally requires quite a bit of time and planning.

So I’m always a little surprised when I get a frantic phone call from a district that wants to implement a blended learning initiative, and they’re looking to start the program in a matter of months. Blended learning may be one of the hottest trends in education right now, but that doesn’t mean you should rush into it, or that you’ll be “behind the curve” if you take the time to implement it thoughtfully.

So how do you go from that seed of an idea to a full-blown blended learning implementation? The journey is different for every district, but there are some steps you can take to set you up for success.

1)   Have a clear understanding of what you mean by the term blended.

The first question I ask districts considering launching a blended learning program is, “What does blended learning mean to you?”

Initially, many districts tell me they use the word blended to describe technology integration, like interactive whiteboards, e-textbooks, Dropbox, or Chromebooks. While these are great tools to engage students and make traditional classroom tasks more efficient, simply using technology would not be considered blended learning. Blended learning is a combination of face-to-face and online instruction that fosters student ownership and personalized, mastery-based learning.

The Clayton Christensen Institute has developed a three-part definition to help educators and stakeholders begin to understand the true essence of blended learning. I strongly recommend reviewing its definition when determining your district’s meaning of blended learning. You can also find great resources from the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

2) Set specific program learning goals.

Now that you’ve answered what blended learning is, ask yourself, “Why are we doing this?” Start a brainstorming session and analyze what you hope to achieve through your blended learning initiative.

If your third-grade reading scores are low, maybe your goal looks like this: “We want to increase those reading scores by 15 percent. To accomplish this, we will combine targeted instruction, online instruction, and independent practice in a blended learning setting.”

Setting specific, measurable metrics early will help you identify the benchmarks of success, and your progress toward those metrics will help you determine when you’re ready to scale your blended learning project.

3) Gather your “all-star” team.

Shifting to blended learning means everyone in your school or district will have to adopt an entirely new mindset, so it’s imperative to drum up grassroots support rather than simply announcing the new policy and expecting everyone to get on board.

It’s effective for administrators to gather a team of “all-stars” to serve on a strategic planning committee. Think about your teachers who are early adopters—the ones who are eager to try the latest technologies. Their perspectives will be incredibly valuable, and they will feel empowered and grateful to be included in the planning process.

Don’t be afraid to include other stakeholders on the committee as well. Parents, community leaders, and school board members who will be affected by your initiative should be a part of the conversation.

4) Develop your plan.

Make sure your strategic planning committee can confidently answer some of the following questions before you begin implementation:

  • What grade level/student population will we serve?

  • How will this change the role of our teachers? Do we have the right PD in place to support them?

  • What student needs are being fulfilled? Do we have the right support systems in place to help students adapt to this new learning style?

  • What online content providers or software will we use for this initiative?

  • Does this change the schedule of the school day? If so, how can we make the transition as seamless as possible?

  • How will we collect data on the success of the blended learning program?

  • What technology will we need to invest in to accomplish our goals?

It may seem strange that technology is the last item on this list, but it truly should be your final concern. After all, technologies will come and go, but without the infrastructure in place to support your new initiative, you’ll end up spending a lot of money on expensive devices that will just sit around collecting dust.

5) Start small.

Though your strategic planning committee will be excited to put their new plan in action, I strongly urge you to start as small as possible. Focus on one subject area in one grade level. For instance, if you have two early adopters on your strategic planning committee teaching eighth-grade science, start your initiative across all eighth-grade science classrooms.

Ask them to monitor the reactions they get to their new blended learning project. Are students excited and making the learning progress you want to see? What questions are parents asking? Are colleagues curious about what’s going on? As they report back to the committee, you’ll be able to determine what’s working and what needs to be tweaked before moving forward.


Above all, be patient. The most successful blended learning implementations generally take two or three years before they’re fully scaled and working properly.

But if you can pull it off, blended learning will revolutionize learning in your district. Once an implementation is complete, teachers have told me it finally feels like their students are taking ownership of their learning, and administrators often say they can’t imagine going back to a non-blended learning environment.

Now that is a project worth doing right.

Comaneci Brooken is the blended learning specialist for Odysseyware, a provider of online, multimedia-enriched K–12 curriculum. Prior to joining Odysseyware, Brooken was an elementary and middle school teacher. After leaving the classroom, she had a seven-year career as state relations manager with Connections Education where she launched several statewide virtual charter schools.

 Image: Robert Daly/Media Bakery


Nine Strategies for Students With Disabilities

How to shift your district to results-driven accountability.
By Will J. Gordillo

The U.S. Office of Special Education Programs recently announced a major shift in the way it oversees the effectiveness of states’ special education programs. Under this new framework, known as Results-Driven Accountability, the federal office has tilted the balance from a system focused primarily on procedural compliance to one that emphasizes improved educational results for students with disabilities.

This change in accountability represents a significant raising of the bar for special education, which I strongly endorse. Throughout my tenure in school districts overseeing the provision of special education and ensuring compliance with IDEA, I’ve been a strong advocate for systems change focused on student performance.

Following are nine strategies schools can employ to shift to this new accountability and improve outcomes for students.

1. Remember the individual

Most students with disabilities receive instruction in the standard curriculum and follow a standard diploma pathway toward graduation. Yet it’s important to remember that the I in IEP stands for Individualized. So we should stop expecting students to deliver the same results at the same pace and in the same ways that their non-disabled peers do. Special education students may have a way and rate of learning that’s different, but “different” doesn’t mean “less.” They may simply need more time and multiple means and opportunities for learning to demonstrate growth and master concepts.

2. Schedule SWDs first

Students need to be provided equal instructional time in core content areas and additional time to minimize the effect of their disability and maximize their opportunities for learning. To find time to provide additional opportunities for learning and mastering concepts, schedule SWDs first. Design the master schedule to accommodate tiered intervention and foster ongoing team collaboration. This will ensure specially designed instruction can be provided in accordance with their IEPs, regardless of the educational environment.

3. Efficiently allocate personnel

One way to find more time in the schedule for tiered intervention and collaboration is to allocate personnel based on student needs. Group students with similar needs in clusters to provide specially designed instruction and evidenced-based interventions in both general and special education classroom settings. 

4. Align to the Common Core

Since the majority of SWDs are served in general education classrooms, their IEPs should be aligned to the Common Core standards. Give students full and meaningful access to the curriculum, including a high-rigor Tier 1 level of reading instruction.

5. Provide early intervention in language and literacy

Focus on early intervention to ensure all students are competent readers by third grade to reduce referrals to special education and reduce future learning gaps.

6. Match evidence-based practices and interventions to individualized needs

Use evidence-based interventions that are proven to deliver educational outcomes for SWDs. If an evidence-based practice or intervention isn’t working, try another one that’s more individualized and addresses the presenting needs of the student while considering the context of his or her disability.

7. Build foundational cognitive skills

When students struggle in general or special education classroom settings, they don’t need more good content and instruction; they need improved cognitive skills to process the curriculum, and then a way to repeatedly practice those skills with feedback and support. One intervention that has been proven to deliver results for SWDs is the Fast ForWord language and reading intervention. Unlike traditional reading interventions, it uses the principles of neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to rewire and reorganize itself—to treat the underlying cause of language and reading difficulties.

8. Measure progress individually

The I in IEP should apply not only to the individualized ways in which students are instructed but also to how their progress is measured. Further, we should not only be concerned about performance on standardized tests but about measuring a student’s progress against his or her own baseline and individual history.

9. Build a data-driven culture

Give educators and service providers access to the data, data analysis, and support they need to engage in effective planning and problem solving. Use this data to ensure that instructional teams understand student needs and can monitor their progress with confidence.  

SWDs often need more time to master concepts and specialized approaches that are proven to be effective based on their instructional needs, measured performance, and recognized disability.

If your plan includes strategies aligned toward the shift to Results-Driven Accountability, the result will be improved outcomes for SWDs.

Will J. Gordillo is an educational consultant and the founder/president of WJG & Associates. He has more than 36 years of experience in the field of special education, including serving as the executive director of exceptional student education for the School District of Palm Beach County and assistant superintendent for special education and psychological services in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.